The cinema was packed, and there was a buzz about the crowd – as you would expect at a pre-release viewing of a new Coen brothers movie.
The Coen boys have long been my favourite writer/directors. You know you’re in for a ride that is going to take you somewhere you haven’t been before. That there will be none of the usual Hollywood signposting, no comfortable formulae to fall back on. That however unfamiliar, however downright weird, wacky, off-beat the course they pursue and the terrain they explore, these drivers know their vehicle. So you strap yourself in and trust them to deliver. And almost always, they do.
Not this time. Not for me, at least. I just couldn’t get on to where the hell they were going with A Serious Man, and by around the half way mark, I didn’t really care. They’d worn me down to a point of fatigue that was hard to fight against. Bored in a Coen brothers movie? Afraid so.
The movie begins with a spooky little zombie fable set in a Polish shtetl (small Jewish village) in the 1800s. Acted out in Yiddish, with English subtitles, this short prologue ends on an unsettling note, then we are projected smack bang into Midwest American suburbia circa 1967, where the rest of the movie plays out.
The point of the prologue eluded me, and there are no hints given. There doesn’t seem to be any connection with the narrative proper, other than the fact that the characters in both are Jewish. Does the prologue prefigure the story that follows? No. Could there be some symbolic intent? Not that I could work out.
Stepping outside Hollywood cinematic conventions and eschewing a formulaic approach to movie making is fine – better than fine, it’s what we expect and want from a class act like the Coens – but random acts of narrative perversity? That’s indulgence, artistic arrogance even.
The main narrative is built around the travails of angst-ridden physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg – good interview here). First, there’s the Korean student who tries to bribe a term paper pass out of him, and won’t take no for an answer. Then there are his kids: daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) who raids his wallet in the service of accumulating enough bucks for a nose job, and son Danny (Aaron Wolff), who prefers smoking dope and listening to the Jefferson Airplane to studying Hebrew or preparing for his approaching bar mitzvah. Unemployable nutjob brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has installed himself on the couch and shows no signs of leaving soon. Then Larry’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) announces that she is leaving him for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a pompous acquaintance whom she regards as more “substantial”; he is manipulated out of the family home and into a cheap motel.
Larry’s lot gets worse – far worse. In fact, he is a modern-day Job, with his creators, the Coens, seemingly relishing their role as his tormenting Jahweh. But while they may be having fun with their victim, the audience is left scratching heads, labouring under the onerous burden of trying to work out the why behind it all.
As is Larry. Like Job, he looks for reasons for his trials and suffering, assuming that he has brought them on himself. He seeks redemption through three rabbis, but nothing works. He has done nothing to bring disaster down upon himself, and this is his problem! He has nothing to atone for, and therefore no control over his cursed existence.
There is no story arc here, no hero’s journey – only a series of ever more serious crises, with the movie sputtering out in the looming shadow of even greater catastrophe.
Indeed, the final scene almost makes this otherwise frustrating and baffling film worth sitting through. I won’t spoil it by divulging details. I will say that the closing image is immensely powerful and is still haunting me days later. It speaks of the disasters and threats that are in store not only for poor doomed Larry, but for the United States and perhaps Judaism itself.
Apart from this stunning departing scene, though, I hate to say it but there’s not a lot going for A Serious Man. There is too much to unravel, and not enough incentive to make the effort.
Why, for instance, the musical fixation on The Jefferson Airplane? They were one of the great bands of the era, and the songs that feature in the movie are from their Surrealistic Pillow album, one of a proliferation of seminal musical statements of the time (1967 has been identified as marking the peak of 60s rock – a view I share). But the Airplane are hardly definitively emblematic of 1967 counterculture.
They were subversives, though, and perhaps this is the key. For A Serious Man is nothing if not subversive – subversive in its undermining of narrative convention, and subversive in its depiction of Judaism in practice. One example of many is the revered Third Rabbi’s only counsel to Larry’s son Danny, after he’s struggled through his bar mitzvah stoned out of his gourd. The rabbi merely quotes lines from the Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody To Love:
When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies…
Don’t you want somebody to love?
And yet, even this sense of subversion that pervades the movie is subverted! For all their irreverence, there is a suggestion of affection in the Coen’s treatment of the Jewish rituals and the life of this Midwest suburban community (which, it may be safely assumed, is broadly reflective of their own formative years in a similar locale).
I think the Coens have tripped up on their own cleverness this time, impressing themselves but leaving their audience out in the cold. There are signs of a dangerous hubris here. I hope they have not bought into the myth that has built around them. Artistically, that is the kiss of death.
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